In a world where tech startups are becoming copious and the concept of ‘innovation’ is flung about to an excessive degree, it might soon become difficult to find authentic models of ‘startup innovation’. In Africa, it is brands like Jumia, MXit and Brck, amongst others, that are able to comfortably make claim to the term. And the most prosperous of these are the startups that have striven to provide African solutions geared
towards confronting the continent’s challenges in the realms of education, connectivity, entrepreneurship as well as broader development.
Joining this list is South Africa’s Capsule Technologies – the inventors of Africa’s first solar-powered Android desktop computer, the IMPI Mk1. Capsule Technologies’ invention came to fruition in February of this year. The desktop computer is a durable, affordable and energy efficient piece of technology. Its runs on the Android 4.4. Kit Kat platform, allowing users access to over a million apps available through the Google Play Store.
The IMPI Mk1 can run solely on solar power and is built to withstand dry and humid conditions. It requires only 20watts of electricity compared to similar technologies, which ordinarily consume about 10 to 20 times more. This makes it an ideal solution for people who live in rural villages and other areas with power shortages. However, as people living in South Africa’s largest cities, townships and suburbs can also attest, the fact that the IMPI Mk1 only needs a single solar panel to run, is of great benefit even in developed areas which still experience a number of rolling blackouts and load-shedding processes as energy levels remain volatile. The IMPI Mk1 essentially addresses the energy crises faced by many communities as well as businesses in many parts of the continent.
IMPI’s energy efficiency aligns well with South Africa’s climate change goals as the country which has ‘committed itself to an emissions trajectory that peaks at 34% below a “Business as Usual” trajectory in 2020 and 40% in 2025’.
Also contributing to the objective of lowering carbon emissions is the fact that the computer uses components that last and are guaranteed for relatively long periods – up to six years – meaning users need only change software and not hardware, on a regular basis.
Founder and director of Capsule Technologies, Megan Verkuil speaks passionately about the possibilities the IMPI creates for the African market: “We’re looking at Africa in terms of computer literacy and we aim to bring technology that creates awareness. We are also speaking to some non-profit organizations, trying to find ways that we can, through this technology help local entrepreneurship.”
Capsule Technologies believes that the IMPI Mk1 is able to cater for a larger market, which brands such as Intel are not able to fully penetrate due to issues of affordability. “We want to offer users the luxury of the Apple [Mac] but at a much more affordable price”, says Verkuil.
The IMPI Mk1 has been recognized as a World Design Capital project. In July, it caught the attention of the Western Cape’s Ministry of Economic Opportunities’ minister, Alan Winde, who defined it as “[an] invention [that] is playing a role positioning the Western Cape as the continent’s innovation hub.”
According to Verkuil, however, lack of support is one of the biggest challenges facing the self-funded startup. She says while Capsule Technologies has gained great momentum after only five months in operation, lack of structural support for similar innovations poses a threat to larger development and sustainability in the field of ICT across the continent. One of the ways the startup was able to raise funds was by joining a crowdsourcing platform, Thundafund.com where it managed to accumulate $2000 (R20, 000) for the purposes of acquiring equipment and developing software.
Equally important to the startup’s vision is the intention to use its technology to make a contribution to another one of the country’s challenges – job creation. Working from a fairly small base in Cape Town with a handful of employees and students, Capsule Technologies is envisioning a very different tomorrow. The founders have made a commitment to hiring “locally, as much as possible” to meet likely manufacturing demand. Their expansion plans while already in motion, are still at the early stages, but according to Verkuil, the company already has clients in other parts of the continent. These include Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Cameroon.
The multipronged approach that has gone into creating the IMPI Mk1 is a progressive proclamation of Africa’s emerging startup culture. It is a culture which – consciously or unconsciously – is advancing the concept of ‘putting people first’ by responding to the African market’s most basic needs. It also highlights the importance of having an intimate understanding of the market within which startups operate. With the right support structures, this model has the potential to boost tech development across the African continent at rates far faster than many have come to expect.